5 Things a Local Would Take You To On Your First Visit to Tacoma, Washington

Welcome to Tacoma, Washington! It's a city with a rich blend of history, culture, and natural beauty nestled in the heart of the Pacific Northwest and my home for the last few decades! I love it here! There's something for everyone from the nature lover to the history buff to the art enthusiast with plenty of adventure in between! Most people think of Seattle when they come to our area, and I really think that visitors are missing out on an incredible city by not making the time to come to this lesser-known area. If you were coming to visit Tacoma for the first time, here are the 5 things I'd take you to do!


5 Things a Local Would Take You To On Your First Visit to Tacoma, Washington


1. Explore Tacoma's Museums

No trip to Tacoma is complete without immersing yourself in its diverse cultural offerings. Tacoma has no shortage of museums, all of them just a bit different, and there is something for everyone. All of the museums are a short distance away from one another in the downtown Tacoma area and most can be explored in just a few short hours, so you could visit more than one!

If you are a local, you can often find museum passes at your local library that offer free admission. Several of the museums also offer free nights monthly for anyone, not just locals.

Find out even more surprising library benefits that will save you money!

Museum of Glass

There are deep roots to the art of glassblowing in the Pacific Northwest and in Tacoma in particular. Renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly is from Tacoma and has a large collection of art on the {free} Chihuly Bridge of Glass. One of the coolest features of the MOG is that you can watch live glassblowing demonstrations in the hot shop. 

The grounds of the MOG are free to explore and are worth taking the time to wander when you are downtown. The Thea Foss Waterway provides a beautiful backdrop to the museum entry and glass sculptures in the water garden out front. If you don't have time to explore the museum, at least spend some time walking the grounds. It won't cost you a dime!

Tacoma Art Museum

Just a short walk away from the Museum of Glass, you'll find the Tacoma Art Museum. You'll find contemporary and Northwest art inside and interesting features of regional and international artists. One of my favorite exhibits I've seen was the art and illustrations of Eric Carle that were on display there. 

My favorite part of the museum is the TAM studio. It's tucked away upstairs and there is no admission required for this free art-making space. There are plenty of hands-on activities and lots of supplies you can use to create. 

LeMay-America's Car Museum

A visit to the LeMay Car Museum is a must for anyone who loves cars and the history of automobiles. You'll find a huge collection of classic cars, vintage vehicles, and interactive exhibits. It's located next to the Tacoma Dome.

Washington State History Museum

I spent a lot of field trips at this museum with my kids. There's a lot of rich Washington state history to explore. You'll find plenty of Native American artifacts to exhibit on the state's pioneering spirit and cultural heritage. There are often traveling exhibitions that give you even more reason to visit. 

2. Discover Nature at Point Defiance Park

Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and immerse yourself in the tranquility of Point Defiance Park, one of the best parts of Tacoma I think! Point Defiance Park spans over 700 acres of pristine wilderness and there are so many different areas to explore, each a little different from the next.


Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

I have spent countless hours at the PDZA and I've seen it evolve through the decades into a really impressive place to explore. The Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is home to more than 9000 animals representing species from across the globe. You'll find majestic tigers to playful sea otters and you can get up close and personal with a diverse array of wildlife while learning about conservation efforts to protect endangered species. 

During the summer, there is a fun playground and splash pad, but don't discount a visit to the PDZA in the winter. The animals are always excited to see visitors and it was always our favorite time to explore.

If you aren't from the PNW, you'll have a chance to explore the sea life of Puget Sound with touch tanks. There's even a portion of the collapsed Narrow's Bridge on display with sea life swimming around it! It's a great way to learn more about nature in the area.

Five Mile Drive

This iconic stretch of road winds through and around old growth forest located in Point Defiance Park. There are five incredible viewpoints to keep your eye out for: Vashon Island, Dalco Passage, Gig Harbor, Narrows, and the Narrows Bridge. On a clear day, you can see the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. Soil erosion closed the road permanently to car traffic, but now I think it makes it even better because it's the perfect place to explore on a bike or as a pedestrian.  

There are a lot of trails that you can wander in as well. FYI, bikes are not allowed on any of the primary trails, only on the five-mile drive loop trail. You can find information about the trails here. 

Point Defiance Park

One of the highlights of the park {even if you aren't a kid!} is the real-life chutes and ladders park just off of Wilson Way. You can take the slides down to the bottom of the hill and end up at the marina below. Just know that you have to take the ladder back up again!

In the summer, the park is blooming with several different specialty gardens like the rose garden {and tunnel}, dahlia trial gardens, rhododendron gardens, and Japanese gardens. There are Northwest native gardens as well, and a pond area that is fun to explore and is always teeming with turtles! It's the perfect place to have a picnic on a sunny day!

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3. Enjoy the Stunning Tacoma Beaches

There is no shortage of waterfront with stunning views of the Puget Sound. Tacoma has some of the most beautiful beaches in the Pacific Northwest! If you are looking to relax, explore tide pools, or catch a glimpse of local wildlife {we have resident whales!}, Tacoma's beaches will give you endless opportunities for outdoor adventure.

I shared an incredible experience with a whale encounter in Tacoma here. 

Owen Beach

You don't even have to leave Point Defiance Park to explore the newly renovated Owen Beach. There is a kids' play area, a new pavilion with updated restrooms, and water access for kayaks or small hand-powered boats.

Titlow Beach

Along the Puget Sound and close to the Narrows Bridge, you'll find Titlow Beach. It's got a kids' play area with a splash pad, and trails, and on those low tide days, it's one of the best places to explore tide pools.

The Whale Trail

Along the Puget Sound coastline, you'll find plenty of viewing areas on the whale trail. Whales are lurking in the waters in Tacoma and they often come close enough to see them from the shores. Whales are often spotted from Owen Beach since the viewpoint is at eye level, but you'll also find that if you are patient and keep your eyes peeled, you can often spot them in the passage at the tip of Dune Penninsula since it has a clear viewpoint across the water towards Vashon and Maury Island around Commencement Bay and over towards Gig Harbor. 

Here are some tips on how you can track the whales in the Tacoma area to get a better chance of seeing them. 

4. Stroll Along Ruston Way

This is one of the places I've seen the most growth and improvement from through the years. Ruston Way is now a vibrant waterfront scene you aren't going to want to miss! It's one of the first places I head to if I want to spend some time near the water. 

Ruston Way actually connects the downtown Tacoma area to Point Defiance. It's a two-mile stretch of scenic paved walking trails. I like parking near the Chinese Reconciliation Park {a beautiful park that is worth exploring in its own right} and making my way down to Point Ruston. Along the way, you'll run into multiple parks, docks, beaches, and areas to explore so you may not make it all the way to Point Ruston!

Exploring Point Ruston

This area has tons of dining, shopping, and recreation options as well as easy access to Dune Penninsula Park. You can easily walk up to Point Defiance Park {especially the chutes and ladders trail as well as the gardens} from Point Ruston. 

You can bring your own bike or rent a Surrey or specialty bike from Wheel Fun Rentals {there is a limited area where you can take the rentals, so pay attention to the path}. We like to grab burgers at Stack 571 and ice cream from Ice Cream Social and take a walk along the pathway. There is also a splash pad and play area if you are visiting with small kids. 

If you want to visit, the Silver Cloud Hotel Point Ruston is a beautiful new hotel in the heart of all of the action. It's even got a rooftop pool with a swim deck and views that are to die for!


5. Explore and Experience the Downtown Tacoma Charm

I love spending time in downtown Tacoma. You can discover a treasure trove of historic landmarks, eclectic shops, and delicious food.

Historic Landmarks

I love the downtown Tacoma architecture. One of the areas I love just parking and walking around in is Antique Row. There is plenty to explore between 7th and 9th streets on Broadway in one of Tacoma's oldest neighborhoods. 

You can find street parking {pay by the hour} or take the Tacoma Light Rail from Tacoma Dome Station. There's free parking at the Link garage and the Light Rail runs every 12 minutes, for free! You'll get off at the Theater District stop. 

There are more than just antique shops on Antique Row, you'll also find unique gift shops and thrift stores. You aren't going to want to miss Sanford & Son. It's a three-story maze with an incredible collection of antiques and more than 20 small business owners inside. 

Grab a cup of coffee at Cremello Cafe and then wander up and down the streets popping into shops. What you find inside might surprise you!

Dine at McMenamins

One of the historic buildings I loved to watch get restored was the McMenamins Elks Temple. It is seven stories of incredible fun and you are encouraged to wander. There are several bars and breweries inside, as well as a hidden bar that is oh so fun to discover! And it's a great place to grab dinner from one of the restaurants or pubs. It can get busy on the weekends and when events are happening, so make sure you have reservations or are willing to kill some time waiting. 

McMenamins hosts lots of live music and events, especially on the weekends, so pay attention to their website. Many of their events are all ages, but some are 21+. 


There is so much to explore in Tacoma, Washington that it needs to be a stop on your itinerary the next time you visit the area, not just a town that you drive through! You can explore the city's museums, take in nature on the trails or at the area beaches or learn about the rich cultural heritage. You are going to love it here! 

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